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Revising Emma: Emma Gets an Agent!!

I’m SO excited to report the news that Emma Nelson, my Pitch Wars mentee, has signed with agent Amanda Ayers Barnett of the Donaghy Literary Group, for representation of her novel Solstice Sisters. Some of you were following along as I helped Emma get her manuscript ready to pitch, so I thought I would bring Emma in to tell the story of this part of her journey. (You can also hear more of Emma’s thoughts about Pitch Wars at her blog at http://blog.emma-nelson.com/.)

Landing an agent is rarely as straightforward as it sounds to those who have never gone through the process. Although it can FEEL like a magic moment, it’s actually not like Cinderella getting outfitted in princess garb with the swish of a wand and swept off to the ball. It’s work, because at the end of the day, it’s a business decision. It takes discernment and thought and often represents a compromise of that fairy-tale vision in your mind.

Amanda is a new agent at the Donaghy Literary Group, and I have invited her to give her side of this story, as well. I  hope she agrees and that I can bring you her Q&A in a week or so.

  • To read Emma’s revision process from the beginning, read this series of POSTS. (You have to page down to start at the beginning -- such is the nature of blogs…)
  • And to read the submitted first chapter of Solstice Sisters, click HERE.

JENNIE: Many of my readers are well aware of the agonies of waiting to hear back from agents – the endless waiting to hear in the first place, the request for pages, more endless waiting. You had a particularly hard time at this stage of the process. What was the negative self-talk going on in your head? What did you do to counteract it and tolerate it?

EMMA: Yes, it was hard. I’ve queried several books over the years, so I feel like I have a pretty thick skin and a high tolerance for rejection, but Pitch Wars was a different ballgame. You have this whole group of people going through the same process, who all started in the same place, and then we get all of the updates—people signing with agents a day after the contest, all the requests I wasn’t getting, and even all of the rejections. It was hard knowing that a group of such high caliber writers were still getting the same types of rejections I’d always gotten. So it’s like querying, but on super potent steroids.

I’m not sure I coped as well as some. I felt defeated. But then someone from the Pitch Wars group posted an article about making goals you can actually control (having an agent love you is not one of those), so I wrote my New Year’s resolutions, and for the first time since 2012, I did NOT make it a goal to get an agent this year. I decided I was in this for the long haul. Even though there are tons of different avenues of publication, I wanted an agent. I had always wanted an agent, and I was going to stick with the path no matter how long it took.

Right after Christmas, I had this genius book idea, so I started mapping that out. I didn’t even think about querying over the holidays, just enjoyed the thought of my new project. And then Amanda emailed me on December 31st. It was the best end to 2016 and start to 2017.

JENNIE: Did your writing group/community help during this part of the process? Many of your writer friends are already agented and published.

EMMA: Yes, I have two friends in particular that are agented and one who is querying, and they were really helpful. Even just for throwing around ideas and venting. I feel like I’ve been around enough people getting agents, that it was easier to know what to expect and how to work through some of the decisions.

JENNIE:  When you got an official offer of representation, how did it feel? Just that first moment? Was it what you expected?

EMMA: Haha. Honestly, it wasn’t. She didn’t exactly SAY she was offering representation. We had a long talk, which was great, and she said, “Well, I guess protocol is to give you two weeks to talk to anyone else who might have the manuscript.” And I said, “So you’re offering to represent me?” I’m sure she thought I was an idiot. But I really liked her. I liked her enthusiasm, and I have always heard great things about new agents and the amazing things they can accomplish.

JENNIE: Your agent asked you to make a number of changes to your manuscript. What were your thoughts upon hearing you had more work to do – especially given how much revision work you had just done?

EMMA: That’s a good question. On the one hand, I expected it. And at that point I’d had some space away from the MS, so it wasn’t as overwhelming as it would have been right after Pitch Wars. But on the other hand, of course you think that after that much work, someone should love everything about it! But I agree with all of her suggestions. They’re really smart and still keep the vision of the book.

JENNIE: Along those same lines, you had other agents requesting different and in some cases bigger changes. It is often a complicated process. How did you evaluate what everyone was asking against your original vision for the book?

EMMA: You helped me with this one, actually! I had an R&R from an agent that I really love. She’s been my dream agent for years, and we’ve had several interactions throughout several books. She didn’t like a pretty big plot element, and when I called to ask your advice, you said, “Oh, but I love the ______.” It made me realize that just because brilliant, insightful dream agent didn’t like certain things, there were others who did. Ultimately, it felt right to go with someone who liked the bones of the book the way they were.

JENNIE:  You participated in Pitch Wars and became a Pitch Wars success story. (Pitch Wars is a fantastic free pitch contest put on by the incredibly generous Brenda Drake.) Can you talk about the pros and cons of being a part of a program like this? In some ways a contest distills the worst parts of the pitching and publishing process into a concentrated timeframe. Of course on the other hand, it gives writers huge opportunities they might not otherwise have.

EMMA: Yes. Exactly. I talked earlier about how that concentrated timeframe is really hard. We all know publishing is a slow business. It’s not uncommon for an agent to take months to read a MS. But in PW, I think there’s a false sense of failure when things don’t happen immediately, like they do for a lot of people. Really, I got an offer 6 weeks after PW. In querying time, that’s not bad at all, but in PW time, it felt agonizing watching so many people with more interest in their book and a dozen offers and whatever else. It’s hard not to compare.

The benefit of PW is, if you’re lucky, you get a phenomenal mentor, like I did. It was so fun to have someone smart and successful in the career I wanted, helping and advising me through the process. My mentor—Jennie—and I got along really well. I think we worked really well together [Jennie says: I totally agree! I loved working with Emma -- she was a dream mentee], and I even traveled to L.A. to have lunch with her, where we came up with this whole new awesome plot point that changed the entire book [best day ever!]. It was a huge blessing to have someone dedicated to me and my book for two months of hardcore revisions. I loved that part of it. I loved having someone to run ideas by, and it felt awesome to have someone who loved my book as much as I did.

JENNIE: At one point during Pitch Wars, you thought you would have to drop out for personal family reasons. Why did you keep going and how did you make that decision?

EMMA: So, my mom has had cancer a couple of times over the years, and I think it was about halfway into Pitch Wars, we found out she was terminal. It was a horrible time.  We were at the hospital around the clock, she didn’t remember who we were for a couple of days, it was just an emotionally exhausting time. Pitch Wars seemed silly in the grand scheme of things, and I felt like I should drop out to focus on family.

I told my mom, and she said, “That’s just dumb. Finish your contest.” Which is totally her. Anyway, she started to improve some. The couple of weeks that we thought were the end were just her meds being off, and when that was fixed, she was much more lucid and didn’t need as much care. She’s still dying, but we’ve ended up having more time than we thought. I guess her telling me to finish was really what made the difference. She knew how much it meant to me, and she wasn’t about to let me give that up.

JENINE: Would you recommend pitch contests to writers? Any cautionary tales about who might best benefit or when in the writing process might be best?

EMMA: Yes, absolutely, I think Pitch Wars is an incredible opportunity. I guess I would just say to go in with an open mind. I know several people were really unhappy with the changes their mentor wanted, but I feel like the whole process was a good dry run for publishing in general. It was hard and fast and emotional, and you’ll want to stab your eyes out and never look at your stupid book again, but the learning that happened in that short amount of time was invaluable.

For me, my Pitch Wars book was the fourth book I’d written, so I think I wasn’t as emotionally attached to it. I knew if this one didn’t work, I’d write another one. I think Pitch Wars helps you find that balance between loving your baby and being able to look at it objectively, and that’s an essential lesson to learn at some point if you want to be in this terrible/wonderful business.

JENNIE: Next up for you is to revise your novel with your new agent, and then go out on submission with it. What will you be working on when that process is complete?

EMMA: Solstice Sisters is intended to be part of a series, so she already has me outlining book two, so she can present the plan to editors who might be interested.

One thing I loved about Amanda was that she asked what else I’d written. When I told her, she was excited about several of those, so I might dust off a YA suspense I’ve been trying to revise. I like the idea of having several books to work with instead of putting all my eggs in one basket. And then I’ll write the next one. And the next.

JENNIE: You are the mother of three kids and you still make time to write. What’s your secret?

EMMA: I think it’s the same secret a lot of moms have—nap time, bedtime, making it a priority. I’ve been working toward it for so many years, that at this point, it’s a habit. I write every day. I make the time, instead of waiting for it to happen on its own. I try to be a good, present mom, but I also think it’s important for my kids to see me working hard at something I dream of accomplishing.

 

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Revising Emma, Volume 9

Things That Might Happen After You Pitch

Waiting to hear from agents after you pitch can be agonizing. You never know, after all, if you will hear news in 30 seconds, three months, or never.  Anything is possible, which can be terribly disconcerting.

Here are some of the most common things you can expect to happen and a few bits of wisdom about how to proceed.

You Get a Request for More Pages

What to do:

  1. Be happy! The request may come in the form of an email or even a phone call. 
  2. Send the requested material ASAP – like THAT DAY – with a professional note. Don't gush. You can express your excitement, of course, but remember: You haven't gotten the gig yet. You have a lot of hurdles still to clear!
  3. Be prepared to wait to get a response to these pages. Reading takes a lot of time and you are probably in a big stack in the agent's inbox. 
  4. Unless the agent requests an exclusive that you grant, you can continue to pitch. Just be sure that your pitch includes a line that says you are sending the pitch to other agents.
  5. Unless the agent says to do something different, I advise writers to follow up on requested pages a month after the request. Send a professional, polite note. Something like this:

SUBJECT LINE: Follow up on requested pages

Dear Agent,

You kindly requested sample chapters of my manuscript, TITLE GOES HERE, a month ago. I know you are very busy, but I wanted to check in on the progress. I have re-attached the samples in case they got lost in cyberspace.

Thanks so much,

 

You Hear Nothing

What to do:

  1. If, after sending your first 5 pitches, you hear nothing at all from any of the agents or receive only form letters :
  2. Double-check that you followed the submission requirements.
  3. You may also want to reconsider your title. I once had a client who insisted on using a particular title that I was worried might scare off some agents. It sounded to me like porn, and the book was not porn. This author did not hear anything from any of his first five queries, and I urged him to re-title the book. He did so, and in the second batch of queries he sent out, he heard from three agents.
  4. You may want to re-think your entire pitch.

 

You Get a Bunch of "Good" Rejections 

 

What to do:

  1. If you got five rejections but some of them said something specific about your book or your idea, or something personally encouraging, you can probably carry on with what you are doing. 
  2. You should feel good about your progress. Something personal and specific is a good sign.
  3. The only exception to this rule is if every good rejection says the same thing – if there is a pattern. Then you may want to consider whether there is something amiss, and set about fixing it.

 

You Get Rejected After a Request for More Pages

What to do:

  1. If you had agents who requested additional materials, but all of them then declined without much comment, you must consider whether the pages you are sending are less than excellent. Odds are good they have some obvious flaws. 
  2. How long do you wait before getting a professional assessment of those pages? I would recommend seeking help after 5-10 such rejections. Remember, you can't go back to an agent who has rejected you, for any reason unless they specifically invite you to do salize

 

You Are Invited to Revise and Resubmit

What to do:

  1. Take the time to understand exactly what the agent is suggesting and decide whether you agree with her suggestions. If you don't agree, don't make the changes just to rope in the agent. You have to love your book. It's FINE to respond to suggestions – as long as they are suggestions that resonate with you.
  2. Understand exactly what the agent is offering. She may be asking for revisions but NOT YET promising representation.
  3. Take the time you need to do as good a job as you can on the revision. Speed is not important here; execution is important.
  4. When you resubmit, put the words "Requested pages" in the subject line; include the date of the original request and remind the agent what she requested.

 

THE BEST THING TO DO REGARDLESS

The best thing to do regardless of what happens when pitching is to keep doing your work. Keep trying to connect with readers, keep writing, keep setting aside time in your life for your creative pursuits. The work is the best celebration and the best solace.

 

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Revising Emma, Volume 8

Emma's pitch strategy is as follows:

  1. Send out the four manuscript requests that came through the PitchWars contest. Customize each one for those agents -- which means looking up books the agent represents, reading interviews they have given about their likes and dislikes, and trying to get a sense of where she and the agents are in alignment. 
  2. Send out one additional query to a PitchWars agent with whom she has had some previous contact. This agent asked to see more work from Emma, but didn't make a formal request to her through PitchWars. Some agents are not open to queries except through contests, which would prevent her from going to them. This agent is open, so Emma decided to send a personalized query mentioning the previous contact.
  3. See what happens! If one of the agents wants to represent Emma, she will need to do more due diligence on them, ask questions about their vision for her book and her career, and decide if she wants to accept their offer. If more than one wants to represent her, she will have to do that more than once. If no one wants to represent her OR if she decides to turn down any offers, she will move on to step #4.
  4. Send out queries to 6 of the top agents on her list**. Inform each that she is sending to a small, select group of agents so that it is clear she is sending to more than one.
  5. Wait two weeks. Evaluate any rejections for clues about how to strengthen the query, then send out 6 more.

** Emma has put together a list of 50 agents who represent the kind of work she writes. She has a polished manuscript, a fantastic synopsis, and a great query. She is ready to roll!

And how does Emma feel about pitching? 

The way any of feel: nervous, excited, fearful that she's not ready, worried that other people are more ready.

We talked for a long time about all the things she has done right, and I reminded her that there are parts of the process she can control and parts she can't. 

So onward she goes!

 

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Revising Emma, Volume 7

Emma Nelson may be trying to get her manuscript picked in PitchWars this year, and to sell her first book, but make no mistake: she is already real pro.

What characterized a pro?

  • A writer who honors her deadlines.
  • A writer who does not give up, even when she's tired, frustrated and overwhelmed.
  • A writer who weighs the opinions of trusted advisors but who is always clear that SHE is the god of her own story.
  • A writer who understands that the big picture elements of story matter as well as the tiny details.
  • A writer who knows when to call it a day.

I want to share with you some of the the email exchange Emma and I had over the pitch that we had declared done in Volume 6. Not much changed between then and what we submitted. Just a few words. Just a few phrases. But this is what it looks like for a pro to dig in. This is what takes work from good to great.

Here's where we started:

EMMA

I really love this! I think it's a perfect representation of what the book MEANS. I could be 100% happy if this is our pitch.

And then I got this:

EMMA

I tweaked like three words. How's this?

After her grandmother passed away, Cici Dardompre left America’s most haunted city in search of proof that death isn’t as final as her mortician father believes. When an upstart competitor threatens the family business, she returns to Salem and finds a haunted tour-guide job to keep her quest alive. As the spirits of Salem’s legendary witches begin hunting her, Cici jumps at the chance to slip into the past, skid through time, and finally uncover what death means for the soul as precisely as she knows what it means for the body.

 

JENNIE

So good! Do you love it? That's what matters!

 

EMMA:

Sorry for the very delayed response. I've had kids throwing up all day.

I kinda 100% love it. You?

 

JENNIE

Me, too! I love it, too!

But then I worked on Emma's query -- a whole different undertaking -- and changed my mind about the pitch. I was nervous about letting her know because Emma and I had a long phone conversation in the middle of this exchange where she said she was tired and frustrated with my endless note-giving. She was exhausted -- with things in her real life and things in her family life -- and wasn't sure she could do any more work on it. But  I screwed up my courage and sent this:

Don’t hate me  — but the query felt so much richer to me than the pitch and since we had a few words to play with I tried to sneak in some of what is so good about the query. It also aligns them better. What do you think?

EMMA

I agree, I like those ideas in there. I think the last sentence got a little convoluted, so I edited that down a bit, but if you think the things I cut add voice, let me know.  

After her grandmother passed away, Cici Dardompre left America’s most haunted city in search of proof that death isn’t as final as her mortician father believes. When an upstart competitor threatens the family business, she returns to Salem and finds a haunted tour-guide job to keep her quest alive. As spirits of Salem’s legendary witches begin hunting her, Cici jumps at the chance to slip through time in search of Granmè and prove that what matters in death, as in life, is defining your own narrative.

We thought we were finally done, but then I got this:

 

 

EMMA:

k. Sorry. i tweaked one more thing. I kept wanting a "but" in there, but we didn't have space. Now that we do, I think it flows better. No?

After her grandmother passed away, Cici Dardompre left America’s most haunted city in search of proof that death isn’t as final as her mortician father believes. But when an upstart eco-friendly funeral home threatens the family’s traditional business, she returns to Salem and finds a haunted tour-guide job to keep her quest alive. As spirits of Salem’s legendary witches begin hunting her, Cici jumps at the chance to slip through time in search of Granmè and prove that what matters in death, as in life, is defining your own narrative.

 

JENNIE

I like it! Good!

EMMA:

Okay, one thought. Since the green funeral is kind of an interesting trend right now, should we include that? Something like:

After her grandmother passed away, Cici Dardompre left America’s most haunted city in search of proof that death isn’t as final as her mortician father believes. But when an upstart eco-friendly funeral home threatens the family's traditional business, she returns to Salem and finds a haunted tour-guide job to keep her quest alive. As spirits of Salem’s legendary witches begin hunting her, Cici jumps at the chance to slip through time in search of Granmè and prove that what matters in death, as in life, is defining your own narrative.

 

JENNIE

Made that change! Going to wait to submit on Halloween for some good ghost karma!

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Revising Emma, Volume 6

As Emma writes forward in her manuscript revision (more will be forthcoming on this) we began thinking about book titles. She wasn't entirely happy with her working title, The Witch's Bond. We came up with a list of titles that sprang directly from her text.

  • The Legend of Bridget Bishop
  • Circle of Souls  
  • Bond of Souls
  • Shadow of Souls
  • Time Flies Over Us
  • The Shadow Behind
  • The Fourth Pillar
  • The Witches Tale (trying to go sort of Shakespearean/folklore here)
  • The Witches Proof

Emma is thinking about all these and weighing them and testing them out with her writer friends and family. She is also considering her genre and how the title will play to her target audience.

We're working on the pitch itself -- which is a *very* short description of the book. This is the kind of thing you would put in a query letter to entice an agent. You want to explain what happens, of course, but you also want to get in the takeaway of the story, the overall feeling. You also want it to tell a little story — to show that you know how to tell a story. And you want it to NOT be coy about what happens.

>>>>> HERE is a post I wrote on Bookbub about how to do a mini pitch.

>>>>> HERE is a PDF I write that walks you through the entire query letter development.

This is not yet finalized, but here is what Emma has so far:

THE PITCH

Cici’s Dardompre left America’s most haunted city in search of proof that death isn’t as final as her mortician father believes. When the family business is threatened by a competitor out to disrupt the funeral industry, she heads back to Salem, taking a night job a ghost-hunting tour guide to keep her quest alive. When the spirits of Salem’s legendary witches begin hunting her, Cici jumps at the chance to slip into the past, which means skidding through time, fighting off apparitions, and struggling to restore the place of death in her own soul and the soul of her city.

THE OPENING LINES

As part of the PitchWars contest, Emma can also submit a short bit of text from her opening page. It has to be the opening page, and combined with the pitch cannot be more than 300 words. At the moment, this is where that opening stands -- but Emma and I are going over these words time and again with a fine-tooth comb so that they are pitch perfect:

 

            Witches Lore is a cluttered tourist shop, made to look like the inside of a crone’s cottage, with colorful spell candles, satchels of divination herbs, and burlap poppets. During the day, we sell passers-by witchy souvenirs. By night, we lead haunted tours. At all of our stops, there’s an indescribable coldness -- a feeling that’s different from not-haunted places. There are strange sounds and smells. People claim to sense things that may or may not be there. I always say that the cold means the presence of spirits. It’s what my research says, and what I believe. It’s why I am out here doing this – in hopes of finding a way to get even closer.

            I step out of the shop and flash my all-white-iris, zombie-lensed eyes, which look especially creepy against my dark skin.

            “I can’t follow you,” an amply-pierced teen whines. “You look like aliens sucked out your soul.”

            I hiss and adjust the witch hat over my springy hair. “Salem’s full of ghosts—let’s not keep them waiting!”

            It’s not where I’d imagined myself a month ago while finishing my dissertation—at a minimum-wage, storytelling gig, wearing Halloween props year-round—but somehow it’s the perfect fit. 

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Revising Emma, Volume 5

Something came up in Emma's life that may prevent her from continuing to work on her novel right now, or even possibly to be part of Pitch Wars. We are not sure, at this time, and whatever her decision is, I will be 100% in support of it. I am not going to say anything about it because it is not my place to do so, but suffice it to say that things happen in all of our lives that are big and unexpected, and that change our perspective on everything, especially writing. For some people, the life events make writing forward impossible. For other people, the life events make writing forward even more critical than it was before. We had an Author Accelerator member this week suffer a very big and frightening event, and she said she HAD to keep writing through it; it was the only thing that made sense to her in a senseless time, and it brought her peace and solace. Other people may make the opposite decision. There is, of course, no right or wrong. I will let you know what Emma decides whenever she decides it.

  • UPDATE: Emma did something super heroic.  In the midst of a family turmoil, she revised her entire novel. She said that it turned out to bring her peace. I am currently reading through the entire thing and helping her make sense of what still needs to be done as we head into the final weeks of the Pitch Wars revision timeline. Here are some of the summary notes I gave her, so you can see the kinds of things we are focusing on:

 

  • You need to let there be some bigger THREAT from all the souls come to life. They are just sort of there bugging Cici. I think they need to be closing in on Zita or her dad (or both ) — just something more dangerous/sinister in a way that is more front and center. (We never actually even SEE Zita sick, for example… I think Cici needs to see souls all over her… and I think something needs to be going down at Tranquil Death)
  • There needs to be a showdown of some kind between Jimmy and Griff. You build to it and then nothing happens. I wonder if you could use the circle scene in some way. Maybe one of them wants to bolt like Mary did (Jimmy turns out to be too afraid???)
  • There needs to be some sort of confrontation/showdown with Ron — more needs to be made of that for sure. I think you can do that once you anchor  this idea more firmly in the first pages — that his business disrupts the energy. The ley lines can just be used to explain this — ley lines don’t need to be developed any more, in my opinion.
  • There needs to be some sort of wrap up with the minister — and I sort of love that he gets Cici before anyone else. I wonder if he can do something to help her cause, or aid and abet her in some way.
  • That brings up some of the Chekov problems — the splinter, the connection to the dark skinned witch, etc. We want to make sure those things are used then resolved.
  • Unresolved makes me think about the Griff/Cici situation. I don’t think you have to have them get together, but I DO think there should be more of a promise there. Maybe a kiss that rocks them both??? Or Jimmy kissing her and Griff going nuts??
  • I don’t love the very end. Having Jimmy at the family Christmas doesn’t make a ton of sense, really…  and the epilogue needs to deliver Cici whatever it is she actually WANTS vis a vis her understanding of death/Grandme, etc. It’s CLOSE but not there yet. I would also love there to be a tease to another Salem story… a sense that something else might happen. Has Ron closed up shop and she seems some other business looking to rent the space?? Which could lead to another adventure?

 

We'll share more next week....

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Revising Emma, Volume 4

Emma writes forward with Chapter 2 and 3. I'm not sure a chapter break belongs where she put it at the end of Chapter 2, because in Chapter 3, things REALLY start to cook. I think she may want to work on getting to the Chapter 3 material faster, but she is writing with so much more authority and narrative drive here. You can just FEEL it, and it's so much fun to see! She has some work to do on establishing what exactly is going on between Cici and Griff, and there are a couple places where the magic logic may need shoring up, but she is in full possession of her story now....

 

Emma Chapter 2 and 3 Revision

 

And a note about Volume 5:   

Something came up in Emma's life that may prevent her from continuing to work on her novel right now, or even possibly to be part of Pitch Wars. We are not sure, at this time, and whatever her decision is, I will be 100% in support of it. I am not going to say anything about it because it is not my place to do so, but suffice it to say that things happen in all of our lives that are big and unexpected, and that change our perspective on everything, especially writing. For some people, the life events make writing forward impossible. For other people, the life events make writing forward even more critical than it was before. We had an Author Accelerator member this week suffer a very big and frightening event, and she said she HAD to keep writing through it; it was the only thing that made sense to her in a senseless time, and it brought her peace and solace. Other people may make the opposite decision. There is, of course, no right or wrong. I will let you know what Emma decides whenever she decides it.

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Revising Emma, Volume 3

Our Pitch Wars Interview was published last week so you can get insight into why Emma picked me, and why I picked her.

Based on all our back-and-forth communication about the magic systems in Emma’s book and the character’s ages and the point of the novel, and the best place to start, Emma set about revising Chapter 1.

As with most revising, it wasn’t a straight path.

Here are some samples from our email exchanges:

Emma writes:

Still working. I will get you something TODAY! Sorry for the hold up.

Emma writes:

Blah. I suck. The good news is that I have found some cool research about ley lines that I think will go perfectly with the magic system and the new-wave funeral home angle. I've been working on those notes and finding a way to make them work with the plot parts that don't currently work.

The bad news is that I haven't made much progress otherwise.

Jennie writes:

Emma, you don’t suck! OMG.

AND you are doing EXACTLY the work you need to be doing — the thinking and sorting in your brain. ALL this novel needs is that work done, and woven in. As I said before, the first few chapters will be hardest — a new entry point. And we may trim and move a few things around. But it’s mostly going to be aging up the characters, getting their story/emotion on the page…. It will all be good.

Emma writes:

Attached is my tweakage of the first chapter. I think/hope it answers the WHY question we've been looking for. I hope it's not too heavy handed or info-dumpy. Fingers crossed! :)

***

Unfortunately, the revised chapter was, in fact. too heavy handed and info-dumpy. It read more like a summary of a novel than a novel itself. This was surprising for two reasons:

1.)   Emma is SO good at writing scenes and letting her story be “in the moment” on the page, but here she just didn’t do what she is good at.

2.)   Emma KNEW it. She CALLED it. I often find that writers know exactly what’s wrong with their work but they don’t have the training or the confidence to trust their instincts. In this case, she was trying to answer all of the WHYs we’d been discussing in a short piece, instead of spreading it out more organically.

Here is that scene, with some notes from me – but the notes weren’t so much to Emma as they were to me as I was trying to work out what was going on in the text. There were so many “topics” introduced and developed and abandoned, and my conclusion was basically that it was just too much – too much info dumped, too much summary.

I ended up spending my writing an email back to Emma explaining my reaction and proposing next steps. That email is below.

 

Emma Chapter 1 _Revision_v1_with Jennie Edits

 

Jennie writes:

Hi Emma,

I read the chapter and wrote some notes on it — and yes, it’s too info-dumpy and heavy handed for Chapter  . Too much ramp-up. BUT for your sense of what is happening and why this story has to occur and what Emma needs, it answers everything almost perfect. So in that sense it’s awesome work! And work the needed to be done. we will come back later and think about the opening of the novel.

What I would like you to do next is get Cici into a scene and into some action — let’s see her on the ghost tour, let’s see her encountering the real ghost and being freaked out — that something is happening here which she desperately wants to happen, has been waiting to happen. So that’s actually Chapter THREE.

Here are some things to think about in terms of revising:

       When she introduces herself on the tour, says her name, can she say something about her family being the morgue owners and how she lives in the room where her grande died and how she/ they have a special connection to the spirits in this place, etc — all as a set up? (Remember everything needs to be either a set up, a pay off, or the road in between…) In this case, I am thinking that she could use that info to add creepiness to her tour, but she’s actually saying something true about herself and her story for the reader’s sake too. Like maybe she says what she WANTS — that they have a unique connection or understanding to the spirits unlike the stupid new funeral home. I feel like people on the tour would love that — it would make it so real and authentic and creepy.

       When she gets to the burial ground, could her granme be buried there? That would be a way to lock in that idea — and we could see Cici reacting in a less cocky/confident way (different from her tour guide persona) there. If grande can’t be buried there, let the burial ground trigger her memories/thoughts/problems about granme — how gramme’s death shook up Cici’s understanding of life/death.

       Look for places to age her up vis a vis Jimmy. When she asks him to come back to the church, make it clear why — does she not want to be alone? Does she need him because of his witch knowledge? Does she WANT to be alone with him? Same for why she calls in Griff, too. We want the WHY for these two right here. What do they offer her? What is their relationship with her and each other?

       You might put someone on the tour to trigger her thoughts about her loser boyfriend and her love life  — like a snuggly newly engaged couple. Just enough for her to say where she is in terms of all that — her philosophy about love and “happily ever after” would totally play into her thoughts about death (and where granme is — is she with HER love, Cici’s grandfather? Or is that part of the problem….?)

       Can she break her “cool” with the tour more when the bangs happen? I’d like to see her rattled — she can be obsessed rattled nor scared rattled. But we want to know this really matters to her — and why. So it’s not like “gee let’s go check out the church” but “OMG THIS COULD BE IT”

       Make her wanting the big job more pronounced than it is — more urgent. Maybe that’s part of the reason she goes back to the church and is so excited about what she thinks she hears — she’s just desperate to prove her worth to Harry. (And then we need to know WHY. What will getting that job MEAN to her — that she can get closer to something she needs to solve her own personal dilemma/question. Is there a place Harry keeps literally under lock and key? Is there a book of spells she wants to get her hands on? Do the tour guides do some secret solstice ritual that she can’t be part of unless they hire her? That might work bc then when she gets to the REAL secret police ritual, she’s found a better/more independent/more real way to what she wants)

I hope this all makes sense.

*** 

Emma and I had a long conversation on the phone, and she agreed we should use this as a basis for the answers we needed to get the infrastructure in place, but try writing the first scene again.

The thing I most love about Emma (and there are many things) is how willing she is to do what is right for the story. She has very strong opinions about what she wants for her story and what she doesn’t want, and she definitely has ego involved, but she is able to step out of all that and think about the story as a separate entity. It is a KEY attribute in doing well as a writer.

If you are revising and editing on your own, you need to be able to take off your writer hat and put on your analyst/editor hat and look at the story on its own merits, then dig back in to fix it.

On Emma’s second iteration, the result was very different.

Jennie writes:

Emma OMG you KILLED it. This is PERFECT!!!!!! What happened the night Granme died — SO GOOD. Rob in the shop — SO GOOD.

I have a bunch of niggling little edits and want to read it through one more time but I have a super busy morning so can’t get to it until later….  but keep going. Write forward from here. This is IT  Don’t stop!!!

***

Emma writes:

YAY!!!! So glad you like it! This one felt so much more natural. Can't believe I didn't start here in the first place. :)

EMMA WRITES AGAIN:

My husband knew I was rewriting chapter one a dozen times. When you sent your email that said I'd nailed it, I showed him. He asked how I felt about it. I said, "It IS way better than it used to be. 100%."

He sent me this text: "You officially have Stockholm's. You are now identifying with your captor."

***

Here’s the second revision of Chapter One with my edits on it. You may be surprised to see so many notes on a piece that I thought was so good. This is par for the course. An editor looks at everything – all the layers – and line edits dig into all of it. For a discussion on how to deal with all those comments, see below.

 

Emma’s Chapter One Revision with Jennie’s Edits

  

Incorporate Edits Now or Later?

A question people often ask when working with an editor is what to DO with all the comments you get. Different writers have different styles and different needs, of course, but there are two main ways to proceed.

1.)   Stop and incorporate all the edits – which is to say, go through line by line and respond to every note by either changing the text or ignoring the comment and marking it resolved. At that point, you can either turn the revised chapter back to your editor, or save it as part of a revised draft the editor will read later

The benefits to this method are that you can respond when the issues are fresh in your mind. You just wrote the pages, so you know what you were trying to do and you can generally go back and quickly respond to everything.

Also, if you make the changes, everything you write will rest upon that more solid foundation.

The drawback to this method is that it slows down your forward progress. Instead of writing forward, you are refining and polishing early chapters, focusing on a lot of nit-picky little details. It can be frustrating and make you feel like you are spinning your wheels.

2.)   The second way forward is to read through the edits, take quick note of any big things that will change, and file them so you can go back later and respond to them.

A writer who takes this tack will end up with a folder full of edits that they will    then go through and respond to all at once.

The benefit to this method is that you can keep moving forward without feeling     stuck in nit picky details.

The drawback is that it might take more energy/effort to go back and dig into the    text once you’ve written forward.

I normally recommend path #1 for a full manuscript revision, but Emma likes to work in chunks of text – not chapter by chapter but a chunk of chapters at a time. It helps her see the big picture and get the flow of things correct. She has a good process that works for her, and that she feels comfortable with, so that is what we decided to do.

She will file these notes, and write forward. She will be sending me a chunk of chapters, and then later will go back to respond to all these notes.

Coming Next:

Emma’s next chunk of pages.

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Revising Emma, Volume 2

Last week, Emma was working on four main issues with her manuscript. Most of our time kept circling back to issue #2 – the age/category question. Should she skew to YA or adult? Her manuscript was somewhere in the middle, which obviously is not good.

Emma experienced a lot of doubt around this decision. Our email exchange, below, captures the ups and downs. We shared many more emails than this, but these sample emails back-and-forth captures the spirit of the debate – and the road to resolution.

The first thing Emma shared with me was the result of the three-part writing exercise I suggested (see last week’s write-up for details on that) and shared with me three of the pieces she generated during that work. What follows are her pieces with my edits. Note that I used "TK" in several places as a placeholder for things still to come (tk= "to come.") Note too that some of the pieces include a lot of redlining because I moved things around and made some suggestions for things Emma might add:

 

Emma's 3 Exercises

 

Adult Funeral Home

Adult Grandma

YA Funeral Home   

 

Emma also shared a lot of marketplace research she did on YA – including the fact that Knopf recently published a YA set in Salem, MA. She also shared some of the thoughts/opinions of some writers from her critique group around this question of YA or adult.

Her critique group is a very accomplished bunch of writers, and when Emma asked them about the age dilemma, many of them thought she should focus on writing YA. 

Here is my response to what she showed me:

Jennie writes:

Hey Emma,
Here are my notes on all 3 of your pieces.
The two I LOVED were both versions of the funeral home. (The granny one has some great texture and detail but felt much lighter and thinner to me.)
On the Adult side, I felt like you actually got really bone close to the POINT of your story and I sort of love the funeral home business problem. BUT we have to make sure why this matters to CICI and not just to her dad. Yes she wants to help her dad. But what is she grappling with emotionally in relation to all this? What in HER life makes this matter to her right now? And how will it relate back to the specific stories she encounters — rape, heart attack, and especially the women/mothers. ESPECIALLY the women/mothers… could Cici have something in her own life with a guy that has not gone well? Or is she not finding a guy she wants to make a life with? Or….?? We talked about CiCi having lost her own mother or a child. Do you want to go there?
 That leads me to another “adult” thought: I keep thinking about the awesome scenes at the end and am still bugged that Jimmy and Griff get to be in that solstice circle. Why not her sister or nieces or mom or grandma? Maybe the answer to that question has something to do with what Cici is seeking/her emotional journey.
 On the YA side — this was so good and so fun. It REALLY sets the scene nicely for the story. Your voices is more naturally YA in many ways. Griff and Jimmy are very YA and we will have to age them up if you go adult. But you could use this set up and more easily lock in the YA angle, I think — you don’t need as deep an emotional character arc for YA. It can be a dark, fun adventure for Cici where she learns something about life/death/herself. I think adult needs a more intense emotional journey.
SO it seems like your critique partners and writing friend mostly think your voice is YA. And for most of my entire first read, I thought this book WAS YA. And it would be easier to take it YA…
 BUT. But. But. I am feeling like you are more drawn to the adult emotions and challenges. And I am feeling like the adult marketing/sales realities align better with your hopes and dreams and goals for your writing career.
I am hoping the bullet point exercise give us more clues….

***

Emma writes:

You're brilliant. I love all of this feedback. You're so right about everything. I vote adult. 100%. Should we just commit to do the work to make this an awesome adult book?

***

 Jennie writes: 

Ohhh look at you putting a stake in the ground!!!!!
 Adult!!!
Ok, so if you do that, here’s what we need: 
1   Your point. You are almost THERE. Just declare it.
2. How this ties into CiCi’s emotional life?  Think about Bridget’s quest and problem (as outlined in your Magic document) and how this can be the thing that pushes Cici where she has been afraid to go in her own life. How can being connected with Bridget in this way be the WORST POSSIBLE THING to happen to Cici right now, given everything else going on in her life. How can the accident of being connected be JUST the thing that Cici REALLY doesn’t need (or actually really does, but doesn’t know it.) Look hard at Bridget and the other women in the witch’s circle and what the need. And look at the stories you wrote in your time slips — what are those really about? Why would a 20-something woman really NOT want to watch those again and again and again — and if forced to, what would she learn about herself? Also look at your point and what Cici knows/believes/has been trained about life and death.
Emma, think BIG here. What does this young woman — Cici — know about the world b/c of her upbringing in a mortuary and a dad that was all scienc-y about death and a mom who was sort of blindly religious? How does that woman go out into the world — what problems would she encounter? What beliefs/misbeliefs would she have to face about herself and the world in order to — what? Hold down a job? Connect with a love interest? Reconcile life and death? 
3. We need to age up the two boys. I’d like a little quick background sketch on each of them. Why are they in Salem? What do they want? What’s their agenda with Cici? 
There will be more but that’s good for now!

***

Emma writes:

Sigh. You ask so many hard questions!!!! (Imagine my best, whiny nasally voice.)
Okay. I will hammer all of this out. I will play around with the first chapter and see if I can get to where we need to be with those ideas, and I'll get character sketches going--especially for the boys and what makes Cici tick.
I'm so excited! I can't wait to make some progress on this thing. Thanks for all of your awesome prodding.

 ***

Jennie writes:

I know these questions are hard and that my asking them makes me a pain in the ass. But this is what is going to get you from great to stellar. Really just this. That emotional layer. You are SO CLOSE. SO very close. You just have to bring it up from your subconscious. You have to trust your powers (sound familiar? Hmm…. same issue CiCi has….)
So write forward in the funeral scene and get us to the ghosting FAST. By the end of the first chapter she needs to hear something/see something/feel something different than she ever has before…. which according to your magic means she needs to get to that nail on that key date….
AND she needs to get there by her own volition — b/c she begged to lead a ghost tour, because she had to, because of something she is trying to sort out in her emotional life. She had to come home to Salem to help her dad AND wrestle this emotional thing to the ground….

 ***

 Emma writes:

You're the BEST pain in the ass.
I like that Cici and I are having the same trust issues. I'll have to draw from that. These are really great questions. I will get there!!!

A Moment of Doubt

Doubt is part of the creative process, whether you are just starting out with an idea or deep into it, as Emma is. Doubt happens. It’s part of the gig. How you deal with it will dictate a lot about your success as a writer.

Even after making such a firm decision, Emma was still bothered by something I said – about how I wasn’t advocating for adult, but was reflecting back that I thought that SHE wanted adult – and she asked me flat-out what I thought she should do.

Emma writes:

I love to read your emails over and over. BUT ONE LINE. I HAVE TO KNOW. The only reason you're advocating Adult is because it's what I want? Would you go for YA?

***

 Jennie writes:

 You SUBMITTED in adult. You didn’t submit in YA.
So when I say that I am advocating for it because I think it’s what you want it’s because i don’t want to push you or sway you. I want you to decide. I mean who am I to know what’s in your hear. But I AM reflecting back to you what I am seeing/hearing.
You didn’t submit in YA.
You didn’t think you were writing YA.
The end of your book is some kick-ass grown up woman serious mother power stuff, which doesn’t feel very YA to me.
And there is that other Knopf book about Salem already in YA. So I LIKE adult for you.  I do. 
Imagine a series set in Salem.
And then I imagine you writing in YA.
And writing something scholarly about folktales.
And going back to adult.
You’re going to have a long and rich and good career, Emma. This is only the start. I know you have written other books, and you will write many more. This is just one.
So YES it’s a massively big decision. But I don’t think it will make or break the success of this book. We can get it where it needs to go with either direction.
So if you wake up tomorrow and say YA, I will say OK! Let’s GO!!!!
But if someone were holding a gun to my head? I would say, “It read like YA yearning to be adult.” And so I would say, “Make it adult.”

 *** 

Emma writes:

 One day I’ll say that Jennie told me I was writing YA that was yearning to be adult, and I haven't looked back since. :)
I love the idea of a slow build. I love the idea of this exploring more than a teenage love triangle. And honestly, if all the agents say "I wish it were YA..." I could still take it back. I'm good at revising!
Thanks for being so supportive while wanting me to make the decision. It means so much. So let's do it. Let's say this bad boy is adult. I can work hard. I can write fast. And if it's not working, we can at least figure out the structure and backstory better and go from there. I think it'll be awesome.

 

Additional Work Emma Did To Move Her Novel Forward

Note that NONE of the following is work that will necessarily BE in the novel. It’s all work done to get Emma to deeply understand her story so she can get it on the page. But it’s all critical to understand in order to do a great revision:

1. Emma’s sketch of the magical systems in her novel.

Every novel with ANY sort of magic or fantasy must have 100% logic. The reader will sense holes in the system – and if there aren’t any, they will be much more likely to embrace the world as real. In Emma’s case, she has witches from the historical record who behave in certain ways, ghosts, time slips (where characters in story present slip back in time), spirits who take real form and spirit form, and people who connect in different ways to spirits. Emma needs ALL of that to be 100% clear – and she needs to realize that since she is the god of this world, she can design it (and really MUST design it) to serve the story she is writing.

This document is a little hard to follow unless you know Emma’s story, but what is important to note is the level of detail it encompasses:

Emma’s Magic System

 

2. Emma’s sketch of the two men in her novel.

She needed to flesh out these characters (NOT their physical characteristics or random history about them, but their WHY – their reason for being in Cici’s story, and what their own agendas are), and while she was doing it, age them up:

Jimmy

Griff

 

3. Emma’s character photos.

In the midst of our exchanges, I added an exercise to help Emma make her decision. It was a series of questions to try to get her to SEE her novel in the world, and how she would connect with her readers. I had hoped that by doing this, she would begin to get a better sense of who those readers might be:

Emma, one other thing I want you to do. A new exercise:
Imagine your launch date. Give me ten bullet points of things you will be doing that week/month. Think blog hops (which ones), interviews (by whom), thanking your blurb-res (who are they?), posting reviews (who is reviewing? what books do they compare it to), shooting a video for your early adopter fans, traveling to give a speech at a school (one is a high school class, one is a college course on narrative and folklore, traveling to give a speech somewhere that isn’t a school. Then imagine you got a movie deal. Who is starring??   Do it for adult and for YA — and let’s see which one feels like it has the most heat.

She didn’t specifically answer all of those questions because we talked about marketing in different contexts that helped reach the same conclusions. But she DID dig into the movie deal question and who would play her characters. Here is what she sent:

Emma’s Characters

 

Next Steps

I asked Emma to take her new Adult opening sketch (shared at the very top of this entry) and write a fully fleshed out first chapter. We'll see what she comes up with in Volume 3.

 

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Revising Emma, Volume 1

 

Volume 1

 

1. Analyze the Whole

The first thing to do when revising is to analyze the whole. You can do this yourself, or use beta readers, or work with a professional editor or book coach.

You want to look at the big things – the broad strokes of the story—to make sure that everything hangs together. Books are often written bit by bit, and it’s not until you have a finished draft that you get a sense of the whole sweep of it. That’s what the first job of a revision is: to assess the whole.

When analyzing a whole manuscript, I generally look at the following:

 

  • Genre
  • Age of Protagonist
  • Protagonist Development
  • What’s at Stake/The Point
  • Where the Story Starts
  • Scene Progression/Narrative Drive
  • Story Logic/World Building
  • The End/The Point

 

Emma’s manuscript is beautifully written, and very well plotted out—things happen in a cause-and-effect trajectory, in a scene by scene progression, and with a certain amount of narrative drive. She’s also very smart about storytelling and narrative design. That is all good news, but still I found weaknesses that need to be shored up in every single area.

Here is a brief rundown of my findings:

2. Break It Down

Genre – There are so many things going on in this work, including witches and ghosts (paranormal), a mystery (suspense), time travel (fantasy), historical elements (history) and even a little romance. I love a multi-layered, complex story, but I wanted to make sure that Emma knew the MAIN genre she was working in so that we were on the same page with that.

Age of Protagonist – At times, the protagonist comes across as a YA voice and at times she comes across as very adult. A wishy-washy age designation would be the death knell for any book, so Emma has to make a decision which category she wants to publish in and tweak the manuscript accordingly.

Protagonist Development – It was unclear exactly what Emma’s protagonist wants. We know what she wants in general—to pay off student loans, to get a job giving ghost tours, to maybe have that cute guy she likes notice her—but we don’t know what’s driving her internally, and we need to know it, from second one.

What’s at Stake/The Point – Because of some of the above, I felt that the point of this book was not yet wholly clear. What exactly is Emma trying to say about human nature through this story? Every story says SOMETHING, and it needs to be saying it starting with sentence one. 

Where the Story Starts – There is a lot of ramp-up in Chapter 1 and even Chapter 2. A lot of conversation, a lot of description, a lot of nothing really happening yet. That’s not good!  We want the story to start at a moment when there is no turning back. We want to be yanked in right from second one. Odds are good that the start of this novel will have to change.

 Scene Progression/Narrative Drive – Although there is great narrative drive overall, there are a few scenes in the middle that drag and need to be tightened up. Everything needs to connect to the main story question—the thing the protagonist wants.

Story Logic/World Building – There is magic in this story—ghosts and witches and some supernatural powers—and there are several places where the logic of the supernatural world doesn’t quite hang together. These are small holes—but they add up. We need to know who gets the powers and why, and what the ghosts and witches think, and how the time slips work. So Emma needs to do some massive world-building development.

The End/The Point – Because the point is not wholly clear, the end is not as powerful as it can be. The scenes leading UP to the end are spectacular, but the end falls a little flat. We need to fix that for sure.

 

3. Deal With the Overwhelm

When she first saw my edit letter, Emma was not happy. There was a lot to do, and the tendency is to think, “HOLY $&*T I CAN’T POSSIBLY DO THAT IN TWO MONTHS.”

But she can.

You can.

Here is a quote from Emma’s first letter to me after she heard I’d picked her, and received my editorial letter:

“I'm so grateful you saw something in my writing, and I'm so excited to work with you! Well, that was my initial response, anyway. Before I read your impossibly hard edit letter! ;)

Just kidding. It's obviously going to be a ton of work, but your suggestions are so smart. There wasn't one thing on your list that I disagreed with. I need to start thinking about them, and my brain is on overload tonight, but I'll start making comments and having a conversation with them in the Google doc….There are so many deep, interesting questions to answer, but based on them, I feel like you really get what I was trying to do with Cici and Bridget and girl power and the awesomeness/tragedy that is Salem. I hope I can get it where it needs to be. I'm more than ready to get to work figuring it all out.”

That “can do” attitude is what is necessary to do a great revision.

So if you get feedback on a full manuscript that makes your knees go weak, or if you read the work yourself and think, “Uh oh,” let yourself have a few moments or a day of despair. Then start making a plan for moving forward.

4. Make a DO-ABLE Plan for Moving Forward

You can’t tackle everything at once, and yet everything is connected. It’s a Catch 22. The way to proceed when there are a lot of things to address is to isolate the foundational elements and work on those first.

Emma and I decided to work on these four elements:

1.     Define the Protagonist’s Age

 In order to do this, we made a pro-con list.

 YA PRO

  • Market—fun market, the cult of a debut (twitter buzz, branding buzz)
  • Stay lighter
  • Love YA as a reader
  • Current younger voice fits
  •  More potential to play up the romantic elements
  • I’ve written 4 other novels—all YA

YA CON

  • Lose potential for some dark facets of story
  • More drawn to the adult themes of this particular story
  •  More work to re-craft the life/situation of existing plot

ADULT PRO

  • Market—women’s fiction is a big market
  • The chance to do something deeper. Not that YA doesn’t deal with dark/deep themes, but as an adult, sometimes it’s fun to think about adult topics
  • There’s something interesting happening with ‘20s/’30s—more millennials questioning what to do with themselves, their careers, their living situations

ADULT CON

  • No YA debut buzz
  • Worry that the lighter tone of the MC is not entirely Adult

 

This exercise didn’t result in any definitive answer, so I asked Emma to pretend to decide on adult, and to take three days to do a three-part writing exercise (below) around the first chapter.

After that, she will pretend to decide on young adult, and do the three-part writing exercise from that point of view.

The three-part writing exercise sneaks in another big question, which is where the book starts. The exercises is as follows:

1.     Start with the opening chapter idea. For fiction and memoir, you know what needs to happen, who it needs to happen to, why it needs to happen NOW, and who is telling it. For non-fiction, you know why you're starting where you are starting, what you are promising to help your reader solve, and the elements that need to be in each chapter. You know a LOT. Use that here.

2.     Set a timer for 45 minutes. Write the opening chapter — write fast, and only as much as you can in the allotted time. Obviously, this will not be a fully fleshed-out chapter. That’s okay. A sketch of the beginning is all we need to assess whether it’s the best place to start.

3.     Get up, go to the bathroom, get a drink of water.

4.     Now set the timer again and write the scene again, only this time, write something totally different. It's the same criteria, but you start in a different place or with a different narrator or from a different angle.

5.     Get up, go to the bathroom, get a drink of water. Maybe have a little snack.

6.     Set the timer again and write the scene again, but this time, write something totally different AGAIN. Perhaps you start in a different place or with a different narrator or from a different angle.

7.     This is going to be hard — on purpose. I want you to see all the options for your story and force yourself to really think through the best way to tell it. This exercise does that by getting you out of your head and into your subconscious, which knows story inside and out.

8.     If you feel you don't have 3x 45 minutes to spend on this, try it with 3x 15 minutes. It's the concept that counts, not the time you spend.

9.     Which of the three beginnings do you like the best? Why?

 

We will see in the next Volume of this newsletter what Emma does on the adult side, then what she does on the YA side.

And will this be easy? Nope. Here’s Emma:

                        “Man, I loved my first line. Cutting the darlings!”

 

2.     Define the POINT of the book.

The way to get at this is for me to pepper Emma with a million questions and for her to spend some time thinking and agonizing and wringing her hands and looking at books she loves and trying to figure out why she was drawn to this idea in the first place.

Here are some of the specific questions I asked Emma:

 

  •  And as for the story’s POINT -- in the end, Cici is totally defending Bridget and women and the power of narrative (to change over time, to change history, to change US) -- which I LOVE. But in Cici’s own life that doesn’t feel like a thing to defend. So it’s weird -- it’s like you built this amazing story but forgot to but the foundation in, how it all ties and relates to Cici. We need to go shore that up.
  • How does what happens tie into CiCi’s emotional life? Think about Bridget’s quest and problem and how this can be the thing that pushes Cici where she has been afraid to go in her own life. How can being connected with Bridget in this way be the WORST POSSIBLE THING to happen to Cici right now, given everything else going on in her life? How can the accident of being connected be JUST the thing that Cici REALLY doesn’t need (or actually really does, but doesn’t know it.)
  •  Look hard at Bridget and the other women in the witch’s circle and what they need. And look at the stories you wrote in your time slips — what are those really about? Why would a 20-something woman really NOT want to watch those again and again and again — and if forced to, what would she learn about herself?

 

TIP: How do you identify your point if you don’t have someone peppering you with specific questions? Imagine that you are on Oprah’s couch (or The Today Show or Jimmy Fallon or whatever your dream venue for reaching readers) and Oprah says, “Can you tell our audiences what your book’s about?” You are probably not going to waste your precious airtime talking about the plot or the what of your book. You are going to talk about the point – why it matters, what it does for readers, why it resonates with them. Don’t worry if your point sounds like a cliché. That probably means you’re on the right track. Write down your point and keep it near the place where you work so it can be your North Star as you write forward.

 

3.) Define the magic – the who, the what, they why, the when, every last little detail.

Here are some of the specific questions I asked Emma:

  • What triggered the original time slip?  In terms of why NOW? And why Cici? And why not anyone else? There has to be a reason WHY HER.
  • Why is this story happening NOW? Has it ever happened before?
  • How does the magic impact Cici and what she wants? (This harkens back to the question about why she is in Salem in the first place…) We don’t just want the stakes to be external (a plain old mystery, or the people in the time slips in trouble), we want them to impact HER really strongly. What happens to her when she sees all these tragic scenes in the past and can’t stop them? What does that do to HER and to her internal struggle/desire
  • Why are deaths she sees haunting her? What about death means something to her? Yes she works in a morgue and is comfortable with dead bodies, but what does any of it MEAN to her?

 

TIP: Here is a great post from novelist Chuck Wendig on how to think about world building. Beware the adult language.

 

4.) Define the protagonistwhat does she want, why does she want it?

Here are some of the specific questions I asked Emma:

  • What is the pre-spirit haunting dream of protagonist?
  • What does she WANT before this all starts? Both on a plot level and an internal level. I never understood why she went to mortician school. Or why she wants to be a tour guide. Or why seeing the murders/deaths of the past meant anything more to her than they would anyone else.  
  • On p 165 you really dig into this and it’s AWESOME. When Cici asks herself what she wantsand how she wants to join the witches around the fire. I want a glimmer of thather desireWAY earlier. I mean why does she love her body and her curls in that moment  (which I LOVE)why does that matter to her. Before that we have no real sense of that. When she says, “I am enough…” did she not feel that before?
  • On p 166 when she talks about discernment, we don’t know what that really means to her….how it would look. She hasn’t really struggled with that. And when she feels freewe hadn’t really known she DIDN’T feel free

 

TIP: Here is Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story and Story Genius, on getting your protagonist’s desire right:
 Make sure your protagonist enters the story already wanting something very badly. All protagonists enter the story with a longstanding desire (even if it’s simply to stay exactly as they are, thank you very much, until the day they shuffle off this mortal coil). What’s more, this thing they want is what defines their story-long overarching agenda. This is something many writers overlook (or don’t even consider). But it is crucial. After all, each of us has a defining agenda, driven by what we want, based on what our life experience has taught us matters. Our agenda is not random or arbitrary, and it’s consistent. The same is true of your protagonist. His agenda defines how he sees the world, what he wants, and what he does, every minute of every day. So, the question to ask of your protagonist as he stands on the threshold of page one is:
  • What does he enter the story wanting on an internal level? Remember, this is something he has wanted for a very long time – something like love or acceptance or to prove he is worthy.
  • What does he enter wanting on an external level? (Think: What does he want to happen externally, in order to satisfy his internal desire?)
  • Why does he want what he wants? What does he believe getting what he wants externally will mean to him? (Don’t forget, what he enters thinking it will mean to him, and what it actually ends up meaning to him might be two very different things indeed.)

 

For Volume 2 of Revising Emma, I will share the conclusions Emma came to in these four areas, and how we decided what to work on next.

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Getting Picked

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Getting Picked

Yesterday, along with the other 125 mentors in Brenda Drake’s PitchWars event, I picked the one writer I decided to work with to present in the agent round. I had 134 submissions and got to pick one – which compared to the number of submissions a typical agent faces in a typical week, are actually pretty good odds.

So the one writer was very, very happy. She got picked. The other writers were not happy because they didn’t.

We all have memories of not being picked. My guess is that they never really go away; they haunt us all in some profound way.  I recently heard Meryl Streeptalking to Terry Gross on NPR about how, as a child, Meryl was forced by her formidable grandmother to sing ‘O Holy Night’ in French at a family gathering, and how this is her touchstone for terror: “If I ever have to play a person who is overcome with fear and terror, I go back to that moment,” she said.

I think the same thing happens with experiences of not being chosen. We can go instantly back to them and call up that shame or embarrassment. It’s tantamount to not being known, to not being seen, to not being enough, to not being loved. 

For me, I would go back to junior high dance class, where I stood in patent leather shoes and a yellow dress, hoping to be picked, but not being picked. My best friend, who was a strikingly beautiful girl, was always picked. She is still one of my dearest friends, and she is still beautiful. Someone recently unearthed an old picture of her one of those dances, and posted it on Facebook. One by one, a string of men leapt in to comment on how they had swooned over her – and almost forty years later, in a heartbeat, I felt exactly what it was like to stand by her and not get picked.

It didn’t feel good.

Being a writer is filled with instances of not being picked – and this is not something to take lightly. In Big Magic, Elizabeth talks about this precise reality, and quotes Mark Mason:

“What’s your favorite flavor of shit sandwich?” What Manson means is that every single pursuit—no matter how wonderful and exciting and glamorous it may initially seem—comes with its own brand of shit sandwich, its own lousy side effects. As Manson writes with profound wisdom: “Everything sucks, some of the time.” You just have to decide what sort of suckage you’re willing to deal with. So the question is not so much “What are you passionate about?” The question is “What are you passionate enough about that you can endure the most disagreeable aspects of the work?” Manson explains it this way: “If you want to be a professional artist, but you aren’t willing to see your work rejected hundreds, if not thousands, of times, then you’re done before you start. If you want to be a hotshot court lawyer, but can’t stand the eighty-hour workweeks, then I’ve got bad news for you.” Because if you love and want something enough—whatever it is—then you don’t really mind eating the shit sandwich that comes with it.” 

For writers, not getting picked is the kind of suckage you have to deal with. To wit:

  • I have a client who cannot seem to get an agent for her magnificent book, and we can’t figure out why. She has tried and tried, and she is just not getting picked.
  •  I have another client who landed a top agent – she was picked! Yay! -- whose book went out on submission to 25 great editors, and whose book has been rejected by every single one of them.  She can’t understand why, can’t wrap her mind around why, simply can’t accept that the end result may simply be that she is not picked.
  • I have another client who got the agent, got the book deal, got the second book deal – she was picked and picked and picked! Yay! -- and then she wasn’t picked to get the big marketing bucks on the publisher’s upcoming list. She feels left out, looked over, neglected and pissed off because… she was not picked.

The point is that it never ends – the hoping to be picked and the risk of not being picked. Dealing with that is part of being a writer.

But to make it a little easier for anyone who entered PitchWars and didn't get picked, or who is pitching right now and not getting picked, I thought I would try to explain a bit about how the picking worked for me.

The first thing to know is that out of the 134 submissions, I only seriously considered seven, and only really debated about three.

The reason for this is that it is much easier to say no than it is to say yes.  

Here are some of the reasons that caused me to say no:

  • A story that doesn’t even hang together in the pitch. If I am scratching my head to follow three paragraphs of a story summary, that’s a big red flag.
  • A story with no point, no purpose, nothing but plot.
  • A story that is trying to be too many things – space opera/dystopian/mystery /romance.
  • Opening pages that have no tension, no urgency, no conflict
  • Opening pages that are wooden and flat

Here are some of the reasons I said maybe:

  • A story that appealed to me. This is so hard to predict or to explain, and has a lot to do with voice and vibe, and coming at an idea in a new way.
  • A story that I believed would appeal to the panel of agents lined up to hear the final pitches. I needed to know the book was commercially viable  -- or could get there. Bonus if the author demonstrated an understanding of the marketplace, through correct genre designation or by mentioning competitive titles.
  • Writing that demonstrated a high level of mastery. I wasn’t looking for perfection, by any means, but an indication that the writer had worked hard to understand the craft.
  • A manuscript I could help make pitch perfect in the short revision deadline (basically two months.) I saw a lot of stories that met the above criteria but had too many issues to resolve in such a short timeframe.
  • A writer open to coaching and willing to work hard.  (This can be assessed by asking a few simple questions.)

Here is the reason I said yes:

  • The entry met most of the above criteria, but not all.
  • The opening pages did not have tension, conflict or narrative drive (I believe the story needs to start much later than it does), but the voice was so strong and assured, and the idea so cool, and everything else was a big thumb’s up, so I forgave that sin. It is an easy fix.
  • Oddly enough, it was not a genre I normally gravitate towards, but there was just something that kept drawing me back to this one entry.  It is impossible to articulate, but it was there, in spades – and I took a chance on it.

When the writer and I finally got to exchange emails, and I sent my 6-page edit letter, and she wrote back answering some of the seminal questions I’d posed and explaining why the heck she’d sent me a book so outside my wheelhouse, we both cried – because for a whole host of reasons, it turns out that we are a mentor-writer match made in heaven. We both felt as though we’d won the lottery. She’d picked me and I’d picked her.

For a brief moment, anyway, we both felt the joy of being chosen.

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